Federal Inmates Allowed To Utilize MP3 Player Service

By Christopher Zoukis

In an innovative move by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), federal inmates are now allowed to purchase MP3 players from their institution's commissary and individual MP3 files through their housing unit's Trust Fund Limited Inmate Communication System (TRULINCS) computers.  This system is offered via a federal contract with Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) and has now been implemented system-wide in federal prisons.  Private contract prisons which house federal prisoners (e.g., Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group) are not included in this service's coverage population. 

Inmates may purchase from their institution's commissary a SanDisk 8GB Clip+ for the price of $69.20.  These MP3 players, which have been modified to not allow for voice recording or the use of the micro SD slot, hold around 1,800 songs, contain a rechargeable battery, a FM radio, a built-on plastic clip, and come equipped with earbud style headphones.  They are very small, only 2" high x 1 1/4" wide (Because of the compactness of the device, inmates tend to make holding cases which can be hung around their necks to ensure the safety of the device).

After purchase, inmates are allowed to activate the MP3 player on the TRULINCS computer system via their personal TRULINCS account.  Once activated, each MP3 player owner will be allowed to browse music selections for a maximum of 60 minutes per day (in 15-minute time intervals), listen to up to 30 music samples a day (in 30-second samples), save songs to their wish list for future purchase, and purchase songs.  Through this system inmates can also delete previously purchased songs and, therefore, delete them from their MP3 players.

Limitations are placed upon the content of the songs available for purchase: only non-explicit songs are available in the catalog of available songs, which includes around 2 million songs from four U.S.-based record labels.  When available, edited versions of explicit songs are available for purchase and download.  Users can search by artist, title, album, song, or even genre.

Limits are also placed upon the number of songs inmates can purchase in a 24-hour period.  Inmates can purchase up to 15 songs each day.  Only individual songs can be purchased, not entire albums at a time.  Songs cost 16 TRU-Units (80 cents), 24 TRU-Units ($1.20), or 31 TRU-Units ($1.55) each.  Each TRU-Unit costs 5 cents and is utilized for the MP3 player service, monitored email service, and printing-function. Only inmate's personal funds can be used to purchase both MP3 players and MP3 files.  As such, the cost burden is placed upon the inmate users and the system is operated at no net cost to American taxpayers.  In fact, profits from music purchases go into an Inmate Welfare Fund which is used to purchase, service, or replace recreation items, telephones, and other equipment.

 When songs are purchased, available songs will be automatically downloaded onto the inmate's MP3 player.  If any songs aren't immediately available, they will be placed in a queue file to be downloaded later.  Typically, system downloads are made at 7 AM.  As such, if an inmate purchases songs at 8 PM, any tracks not immediately available will be able to be downloaded after 7 AM the following morning.

When an inmate needs to recharge their MP3 player, they utilize a central charging station located in their housing unit which contains between 18 and 32 charging slots.  Charging is free for inmate participants.  All the MP3 player owner has to do is plug the MP3 player in and wait until the charge is complete.  It is the inmate's responsibility to watch their MP3 player while it is charging.  While charging time varies depending on how much of a charge remains, charging can take up to 3 hours for a full charge.

To discourage theft -- rampant with traditional Walkman-style radios -- the MP3 players must be "revalidated" every 14 days.  If an inmate does not revalidate their MP3 player -- via either purchasing new songs (which causes the player to automatically revalidate) or engaging the revalidation feature -- the MP3 player will cease to work.  Upon release, inmates can mail their MP3 player to the Advanced Technologies Group, with a $15 check, and ATG will remove the security functions and activate the voice recording component and mini SD slot.

Some problems have been reported with the BOP's Sandisk 8 GB Clip+.  The primary complaint is that the devices tend to stop working completely.  This appears to be due to the software modifications made by the vendor, and the MP3 players have been known to freeze, automatically shut down, or become inoperable altogether.  When this occurs, some institutions simply replace the MP3 player and allow the inmate to download the songs which they had previously purchased. Others follow the official protocol, which involves sending out the player to the vendor, with significant delays as to turn-around time.  Note that some institutions don't allow inmates to mail their MP3 players to the vendor for service even when they are still under warranty since this could theoretically present a security concern.

Other problems revolve around the FM radio.  Unfortunately, the built-in FM radio isn't nearly as strong as that of a typical handheld FM radio, and does not have AM reception, either.   As such, some inmates prefer to purchase both an MP3 player to listen to MP3s and a $40 Walkman-type radio to listen to the radio and the TVs, which utilize FM modulators for sound broadcast.

Problems aside, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' contract with Advanced Technologies Group to provide MP3 player service to federal inmates appears to be a resounding success.  The contract allows inmates to listen to approved music, learn how to utilize modern-day technologies, and use their leisure time in a more productive manner.  All in all, it is a win-win for the BOP, ATG, and federal inmates alike.